Defending the Human Rights Watchdog of the Americas | Freedom House

Defending the Human Rights Watchdog of the Americas

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Photo Credit: Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)

On March 22, the Organization of American States (OAS) held its 44th Special Session of the General Assembly to approve recommendations presented by the Permanent Council for strengthening the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Last week, Freedom House signed on to a declaration by almost 100 policy figures and former heads of state that urged the OAS to sustain the commission’s mandate to protect fundamental freedoms in Latin America. Below, Freedom House trustee Diana Villiers Negroponte shares her views on the significance of the final resolution, agreed upon after 12 hours of deliberation by OAS foreign ministers, and what it means for the future of the IACHR as an independent watchdog in the region.

  1. What was at stake in the 12 hours of deliberation among the OAS ministers? What were the main recommendations for reforming the IACHR? Were these measures truly meant to strengthen the system, or rather to undermine it?

The OAS member states recognized that a body of jurisprudence and principles constructed over 50 years was threatened by governments which reject liberal democracy. With patience over 22 months, the OAS members discussed the Ecuadoran and Venezuelan proposals. These focused on eliminating voluntary contributions to the IACHR, reducing the funds available for the special rapporteur on freedom of expression, and in a more recent suggestion, moving the IACHR out of Washington. Despite a certain sympathy for curtailing the role of the IACHR due to its strong indictments against member states for their human rights records, the majority of OAS members recognized that the independence and the values of the IACHR were more important than the criticisms.

  1. Many OAS watchers were relieved, and somewhat surprised, to see that the foreign ministers rejected the ALBA group’s proposals for reform, which human rights organizations believed would undermine the commission’s ability to maintain its independence. What is the significance of this loss for the ALBA bloc?

The continental members of the Bolivarian Alliance, known by the acronym ALBA, are Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua. They were defeated in their effort to change the rules during this session. We should note that the Caribbean members of ALBA did not endorse the continental members’ criticism of the IACHR and its rapporteur for freedom of expression. Argentina prevented an Ecuadoran and Venezuelan walkout of the OAS by proposing “to continue the dialogue on the core aspects” (General Assembly Resolution XLIV-E/13). Therefore, we should expect the discussions to continue and be raised before the OAS General Assembly at some future date. Given the 22 months of discussions to reach today’s rejection of the ALBA criticism, it is unlikely that the proposed constraints on the IACHR will find majority support in the near future. However, these issues will continue to be an irritant among OAS members.

  1. In some respects, Mexico’s decision to side with Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, Canada, and the United States in defeating the proposal by the ALBA group was surprising. Why do you think Mexico sided with these countries? Which other countries do you think played a constructive role in the debate?

In the period 2010–12, the IACHR received more complaints against the government of Mexico than against any other member of the OAS. Nevertheless, Mexico firmly rejected the continental ALBA complaints, firmly endorsing the principles of the Democratic Charter and the independence of the rapporteur for freedom of expression. This is due in large part to the excellence of the executive secretary of the commission, Emilio Álvarez Icaza Longoria; the Mexican ambassador to the OAS; and other Mexican representatives in the commission. Mexico’s strong stand against the dilution of OAS principles served to balance Brazil, which had indicated a willingness to compromise with the ALBA critique.

  1. What were the main wins for the commission in the final resolution?

The final resolution of the OAS retained the IACHR’s right to receive voluntary contributions from member states, civil society, and observer nations until such time as the OAS “attain[s] full financing of the inter-American human rights system through the Regular Fund of the OAS.” Despite the language in the final resolution that donations should be “preferably not earmarked,” those funds for the IACHR and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights may continue.

  1. What are some lingering concerns in the language of the resolution?

After close to two years of dialogue among the OAS members, the issues remain open ended. The ALBA group may continue to attack the IACHR, which will distract it from its principal mission of defending human rights. While under this threat, the IACHR may choose to soften its position in cases brought against Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua in an effort to appease the respective governments and keep these member states within the OAS system.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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